The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Avengers
DVD Playback
Anatomy of a Murder
The Last Temptation
ASC Close-Up
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (1080p High Definition)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; LPCM Mono
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is immediately accessible, endlessly complex and rousingly entertaining as it addresses profoundly unsettling truths about human nature. The story is simple on its surface: small-town attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes a case defending a young soldier (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing a man who allegedly raped the soldier’s wife (Lee Remick). Facing off against a hotshot prosecutor from the big city (George C. Scott), Biegler uses his considerable skills to try to win his client’s freedom — all the while never sure the client is free of guilt.

Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Hayes, adapting lawyer Robert Travel’s semi-autobiographical novel, take this basic premise and elaborate upon it to create a powerful treatise on a variety of big subjects, among them the illusory nature of truth, the ethical problems of the judicial system, and how sexual double standards and private views on morality operate in the public sphere. Yet this is far from a preachy message movie; Preminger skillfully weaves the issues into a propulsive narrative as suspenseful and funny as any Hitchcock thriller. Anatomy of a Murder is a film that delights less in the results of law than in its processes, with such focus on the minutiae of legal practice it takes 161 minutes to tell its relatively straightforward story.       

Yet Anatomy of a Murder never feels slow or long, thanks to its flawless screenplay and its expert sense of visual craft. The movie was photographed by frequent Preminger collaborator Sam Leavitt, ASC, whose monochromatic images underline the moral complexity and psychological realism of the story. Eschewing sharp contrasts of light and shadow in favor of subtle gradations of gray, Leavitt actively avoids any sense of melodrama or self-consciousness in his presentation; the camera moves are sophisticated but dramatically motivated, and the lighting often seems to be coming from practicals that avoid commentary on the drama.

Preminger’s decision to shoot the entire film on location inspires another of Leavitt’s devices: a heavy reliance on natural light that adds to the movie’s sense of naturalism and provides one of its most resonant visual motifs. Light streams in through windows and doorways, and frames-within-frames emphasize the divisions among the characters and supply reflective surfaces to express man’s duality. Occurring early on, a nice exchange offers a clue to the significance of these frames when Biegler’s friend criticizes him for drinking alone, and the lawyer responds, “You’re living in a glass house.” The friend’s reply sums up Preminger’s view of human frailty nicely: “My windows have been busted a long time ago.”

This new Blu-ray of Anatomy of a Murder represents the first time the film has been released in its proper 1.85 aspect ratio, and the transfer is superb. The nuances of Leavitt’s gray scale are flawlessly preserved, with stable contrast and a nice film-like grain throughout. The disc also features two excellent soundtracks, one representing the film’s original mono mix and an additional surround track. The mono track is surprisingly bold and powerful, but the 5.1 mix has a broader dynamic range and adds power to the film without overdoing the surround effects. Both soundtracks are free of the kind of background hiss and pops one often finds on reissues of older films.

Criterion has also served up one of its best supplement packages for this sterling release. First and best among the extras is a half-hour interview with film historian Foster Hirsch, who supplies a helpful biographical sketch of Preminger before going on to a cogent analysis of the director’s style and themes. Critic Gary Giddins provides an equally insightful look at Duke Ellington’s innovative score for the film in a 21-minute interview, and a 15-minute conversation with Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham about that graphic designer’s acclaimed work on Preminger’s title sequences is included. The disc also features a gallery of production stills and archival footage, including a behind-the-scenes newsreel and a 10-minute excerpt from the TV show Firing Line, in which Preminger discusses censorship with William F. Buckley Jr. Finally, there is a fascinating 30-minute excerpt from the work-in-progress Anatomy of Anatomy, a documentary that explores the production history of the film and its effects on the residents of the Michigan town in which it was shot. 

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